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I’m an avid traveller, but the first holiday with my baby made me feel clueless

So, I asked fellow travelling parents to share their tips and tricks – here's what they had to say

My 15-month-old son, Julian, is a champion road tripper. We’ve driven from our hometown of Minneapolis to the East Coast and back and explored half a dozen states in the Midwest. But our first “real” family holiday – the kind involving flights and time-zone changes – was a low-grade disaster.

We had chosen San Diego precisely because it seemed so baby-friendly: warm weather, beautiful beaches, a cool children’s museum, and one of the best zoos on earth. Don’t get me wrong, there were some incredible moments: My heart nearly burst out of my chest watching Julian, who was then 10.5 months old, crawl on a beach for the first time, gobsmacked by this magical thing we call sand. But the challenges, which were myriad (teething fits, diaper blowouts, and stroller tantrums), made me feel like an amateur. I’ve visited more than 70 countries for work and pleasure; how could a little jaunt to an easy-breezy place like San Diego be my undoing?

There are reams of super travellers who make travelling with children look so easy. They bounce around the world with their families, posting photos of angelic offspring staring dreamily out airplane windows or splashing around infinity pools at luxury hotels. They take their babies and toddlers to see penguins in Antarctica, meerkats in the Kalahari, and Ireland’s majestic Ashford Castle at Christmastime. What do they know that I don’t? Or is this just one big social media lie, where only the good stuff gets shared? Instead of scrolling and stewing, I decided to ask them.

Ahead, a hotel photographer, podcaster, fellow travel journalists, and other super-traveller parents of very young children demystify what’s real and what’s not, and share tips that anyone travelling with a baby or toddler can steal to make their experience that much easier – whether you're going halfway around the world or one town over.

Start ‘em young. Like, newborn-young.

David DiGregorio, the New York-based managing director of consulting firm CornerSun Destination Marketing, and his wife travelled frequently before having children. But when Chandra got pregnant with their first child, people loved to chirp, “Guess your travelling days are over!” The couple found this response obnoxious and decided that, no, actually, their daughter Samara would have to “adjust to our lifestyle just as much as we would have to adjust to hers.” 

From the get-go, Samara was out and about with the DiGregorios, joining them at parties and in restaurants, and crossing Canada by train when she was 10 weeks old. “It got her used to moving around and being out of a routine very early in life,” says DiGregorio. “By the time she was a year old, she was extremely adaptable and could easily be put into new situations without complaining […] It was the perfect training for the little traveller she became.”

Choose destinations with kid-friendly cultures, says David DiGregorio, whose 10-year-old daughter has visited almost 50 countries

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Fast-forward to today and Samara, now 10, has been to 49 countries on five continents. She swam with sea lions in the Galápagos before she turned two and road-tripped across Iran at age four. (This incredible video, which the family recorded when Samara was between four and five years old, captures it well.) Her two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Sarai, has also started collecting passport stamps (Brazil, Norway, and beyond), despite being born during the pandemic.

DiGregorio credits an early start with teaching his daughters how to be less nonjudgmental and more flexible. “Samara understands fundamentally what so many Americans don’t when travelling abroad – that she is the foreigner and must adjust, not the other way around,” he says. It’s also been a big confidence booster. “Samara is happy to order her own food at a restaurant or go into a store on her own to buy something using money she’s never seen before. Put her on a playground anywhere in the world and she’ll come back with friends even if she doesn’t speak the language.”

Travel to places that love children

“The US is not a kid-friendly culture,” adds DiGregorio, noting how often American families are made to feel like a burden simply for existing. I experienced this acutely when we were riding the Africa Tram at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the couple next to us griped loudly about a toddler squealing two rows back. Though it wasn’t Julian they were complaining about, it made us feel terribly self-conscious – and that’s in a theme park predominantly designed for children.

That’s not the case in most South American and European countries, says DiGregorio. “Those cultures revere kids and you will never wait in line at customs or at the airport or feel shunned for bringing your kid to a restaurant,” he says. “It’s just a totally different mindset.”

When it comes to flying, brace for impact

I thought we were prepared for our flight from Minneapolis to San Diego. We bought Julian his own seat, even though he’s allowed to fly for free until he’s two. I packed a minimart’s worth of snacks and had him suck on a bottle during takeoff and landing. I snuck three new toys into his diaper bag, which I dutifully wrapped like Christmas presents just like the TikTok hack told me to, and even brought a roll of blue electrical tape because I’d read somewhere that babies like peeling the strips off the tray table.

Most parents are guilty of only showing the idyllic moments on social media, admits Ashlea Halpern – even herself

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Well, Julian ploughed through his snacks in the first hour, played with his new toys for 18 seconds, and tried to eat the tape. He didn’t have the attention span to watch anything on the seat-back monitor, but he sure liked whacking it, which of course we couldn’t allow because it disrupted other passengers. Just when we thought the minutes on the airplane countdown clock couldn’t tick by any slower, he began teething ferociously and my husband spent the final hour of the flight soothing him in the bathroom.

To my relief, other super-travellers shared similar horror stories. DiGregorio told me how Samara used to get violently carsick and once threw up on the way to the Quito airport and then again all over the seats en route to the Galápagos. “That trip to Ecuador was the best,” says DiGregorio, “but that part of it was the absolute worst. That’s just the reality of travelling with young kids sometimes.”

Several parents told me they limit screen time at home but always pack an iPad loaded with educational games and children’s shows. Chris Schalkx, a Bangkok-based writer, photographer, and Condé Nast Traveller contributor whose four-year-old son, Ollie, has already been to a dozen countries, further staves off in-flight boredom with a multi-compartment pouch that he calls a “veritable Swiss Army knife of entertainment options,” including toy cars and coloured pencils. To add an element of surprise, Schalkx and his wife make sure to sneak in one or two things Ollie has never played with before.

To those suggestions, I would also add choosing seats at the back of the plane, so you don’t have to weather the glares of 100 strangers when you’re pacing up and down the aisles with a cranky baby, and boarding the flight at the very last minute. Though most airlines offer early boarding to families, I’d argue that the less time your child has to spend in their seat (aka prison), the better. Instead, send one parent in early with all the stuff while the other keeps Junior entertained at the gate until the final boarding call.

Consider the jet lag

“As much as it can be a slog for adults, time zone shifts can prove especially disorienting for the youngest,” says Tom Marchant, the London-based co-founder of luxury travel agency Black Tomato and father of four-year-old Minnie and two-year-old Coco. His best strategy for coping with jet lag is to build in an extra day or two to acclimate to a new time zone. If they have only a few days to spare, they stick closer to home. DiGregorio agrees, noting how his family travelled mostly to South America when Samara was very small because the time zones were similar to New York and it was easier to maintain her sleep schedule.

Bring backup if you can

“My parents are my secret weapon,” admits Tanveer Badal, a Los Angeles-based travel and hotel photographer and Condé Nast Traveller contributor with two daughters, five-year-old Aria Luna and seven-month-old Sahara Blue. On Aria’s first long-haul flight to visit extended family in Bangladesh, Badal’s parents and wife took over a bulkhead row and made good use of the bassinet; the grandparents also accompanied the family to Mexico. “They get to see their grandkids and they double as babysitters,” says Badal. “It’s win-win.”

Pack intentionally, not excessively

When Kathryn Romeyn, a Bali-based travel journalist and podcaster, and her husband brought their 10-week-old daughter, Indah Marks, to Palm Springs, they packed “the entire house.” Though she felt silly showing up for a three-night stay in an SUV brimming with baby gear, being overly prepared for that first trip gave her the confidence to trim her packing list moving forward. Indah, who is now two, has visited 15 countries, stayed in more than 90 hotels, and taken 78 flights. Gone are the days of schlepping bouncers, loungers, and rockers; the main things Romeyn brings now are Indah’s beloved blanket and stuffed animals and in-flight entertainment like Wikki Stix.

When I think back on the suitcase I packed for San Diego, I’m embarrassed, too: It was 60 per cent diapers and 30 per cent baby food. As DiGregorio observed, you can usually buy anything you need abroad. “No matter where you go, people have kids,” he says. “You don’t need the same [brands] you have at home.”

Like it or not, some babies are just chiller than others

For years, I’ve been hearing about these mythical “easy” babies and that is so not my kid. On a scale of one to 10, Julian is an 11.5. Screaming is his love language – the louder, the better. His exuberance is delightful and exhausting, especially for introverted parents like us. So of course I’m floored by someone like Romeyn bringing Indah on an African safari at 11 months of age. While she acknowledges that her daughter is “freakishly chill,” even icy-cool babies have their moments: It’s heartening to hear that when Indah was three months old, she cried her way through a Michelin-starred dinner. No baby is perfect all the time – it just might look that way on social media.

Besides, the selective posting cuts both ways. Romeyn told me she was surprised to hear how rambunctious Julian is because my own Instagram account paints a different picture. By showing only the idyllic moments, I am just as guilty of perpetuating unrealistic expectations for other parents.

Know that it gets easier (eventually)

It may be cold comfort when your toddler is acting like a terror, but most of the super travellers I spoke with agreed: Ages one to three are really tough. Two is a milestone, at least, because kids are walking on their own, they’re more distractible for longer periods of time, they have more consistent eating and sleeping routines, and they’re finally better at communicating whatever it is they want or need. The next milestone is four, because you’ve done away with naps and diapers and children are more engaged with the world around them. Marchant describes Minnie as “a great traveller now,” adding what a joy it is to watch “this little person making her way through the world.” Schalkx calls Ollie “my best travel buddy” and says there’s no trip he wouldn’t take with him, no matter how far-flung. (To wit: They recently hiked up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan.)

DiGregorio agrees. “The most rewarding moments usually come not while we’re travelling, but long after we’re home,” he says. “It could be an openness [my daughter] had in engaging with someone from a different culture or a willingness to try foods that most kids her age wouldn’t even look at. I see the rewards of our travels in her open-mindedness and also her continued thirst to experience new places and cultures. I am so proud of her for that.”

A version of this article originally featured on Condé Nast Traveler.